Friday, June 14, 2019

Guthli Has Wings: Q & A with Author-Illustrator Kanak Shashi

“Why do you keep saying I’m a boy when I’m a girl?” Guthli asks her mother. 

Tulika's latest picture book, Guthli Has Wings by Kanak Shashi, is a compelling story about gender identity. Framed by vibrant cut-out illustrations it explores, simply but boldly, the confusion and acceptance that Guthli and her loving family go through. We spoke to the author about her book, the process and the challenges that she faced. 

What prompted you to write Guthli?

I have always been interested in gender. In how the world seems too neatly divided into two genders – almost like a black and white strip, where grey spaces are taken into account reluctantly, if at all, while violently ‘othered’ most of the time. I have been exploring these themes for a long time. One thing that has always drawn my attention particularly is the performative aspect of gender – the way we are, our whole existence is, gendered. And that is not only about the ‘choice’ of clothes. It’s a long, long list of dos and don’ts of acceptable roles.

So, when I was working for  FICA (Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art) on a magazine project with a group of children in Delhi, I observed that sometimes they used to tease each other – “Ye ladki ke jaise mehndi lagake aaya hai... ye ladkon ki tarah football khelti hai... (He’s come wearing mehendi like a girl… She’s playing football like a boy…) etc. So we discussed what they understood about gender, what the differences were between boys and girls, and we did a fun activity where we changed gender roles. Some of them were shy, but most of them copied all the available stereotypes. The point is that those children actually enacted the performance of gender, and in that way also thought about the whole process. 

This exercise was a learning experience for me. And it gave me the idea for another Guthli story. Guthli was not a new character at that time. I had already written a couple of stories with Guthli as a girl. But that activity with children added a new dimension – it opened for me the possibilities to explore the fluidity of gender through this character.

When was the story first published? 

In 2015, in Being Boys (Tulika).

I had written Guthali Toh Pari Hai in Hindi – yes, I write in Hindi! – in 2010, which my friend Rinchin translated into English as Guthli Has Wings, and this was suggested as a story for the anthology Being Boys. Recently, a Bhopal-based NGO Muskaan published it as part of their English reader set. And now this picture book!

Why did you decide to write a picture book addressing very young children in the 5 to 7 age group? Aren't they too young to understand issues of gender identity?

As seen in the children’s activity I just spoke about, I think the sooner you start talking to children the better it is. I have seen children aged 3-6 years trying on each other’s clothes – girls wearing boys’ clothes and vice-versa. Boys speak like girls (main nahi jaoongi-aaoongi) and girls like boys (khaoonga-pioonga). This is all before the standard gender roles are firmly cemented in their minds. For them it’s a fun thing, they can be anything they want... a girl, a boy, or something entirely different.
Children are intelligent beings incessantly exploring the world around them and getting amazed by it. Biases and prejudices are not in their nature – they learn these at a very young stage from us, the adult world. The point is that we are teaching these to them from a very, very early stage. Now, if we want to cultivate a different sensibility about gender, the time to start that too is at a much younger stage than we usually concede.

What were the challenges when writing a picture book on a theme that is seen widely as a ‘taboo’ in children's books?

There was nothing especially challenging about writing the book! Of course, every work is challenging, as in you try to explore new ways and perspectives of seeing, creating and experiencing things. In that way, given the ‘taboo’, that is, talking about gender, the challenge is now for the readers – teachers, parents, etc. Somehow, I have a feeling that it won’t be as confusing for the children as it might be for the adults.

Interestingly, many contemporary writers are exploring so-called ‘taboo’ subjects – death, poverty, human rights struggles etc. – in children’s books. For example, Rinchin. 

Have you interacted with this age group using the story?

Not with this story in particular, but I have interacted with children on these themes.

Would you agree that such books are needed to sensitise adults more than children as it is their attitudes that influence children the most?

Lots of material is already available for adults, but do they read it? Maybe they don’t feel the need to read, and even if they do, how many of them talk about gender with their children? I think discussions – asking questions – are important, and children are better at that. What parents need to do is to be honest if they don’t know the answers to the questions raised by children. Then they should find out about them, rather than brushing aside the children’s questions.

You have also illustrated the book. Was there any reason to choose this particular style of art using paper cut-outs?

In art practice, you always try to experiment and explore things. That is the fun of doing art. And since I was also the writer in this case, it gave me more freedom to play around with the medium.


Kanak Shashi loves walking amidst nature collecting twigs, leaves, seeds and feathers, and wondering what stories they may hold within. An artist, she has studied painting at MS University, Vadodara, and been illustrating, writing and designing children’s books for over a decade.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Goshtarang project: Q and A with Geethanjali Kulkarni

When we read about The Goshtarang project spreading awareness on reading using Tulika's books in very unusual ways, we wanted to know all about it!

This ‘reading writing enhancement programme’, as a part of the Quality Education Support Trust (QUEST), introduces books and authors to the tribal children using theatrical performances based on story books. So far, the project has covered over 25,000 children in 115 schools across 12,000 kilometres. We spoke to Geethanjali Kulkarni, the Project Coordinator of Goshtarang, about theatre, multilingualism and of course, our books.

1. How did Goshtarang come into being? We’d like to know.

Five years ago in the Wada Taluka in Maharashtra, young Balmitras from the QUEST, teamed up with some local artists from the nearby villages to perform children’s stories. One of them was Itku-Pitku, the story of two mice, performed using puppets. The group performed wherever they could, in schools, open spaces and on streets.

 During one such performance, a little girl realised that the puppets were being manipulated from behind a screen. Intrigued by this, she watched the remaining performance from the side of the screen. Her curiosity overwhelmed us. That’s when we decided that we’d performfor the children in these villages every year. This was how Goshtarang was born. It is the brainchild of Nilesh Nimkar, the Director of the QUEST, and now I’m taking it forward.

2. We know children enjoy performances. Tell us about some of the positive and encouraging responses that you’ve had.

When I see the joy on the faces of the little children in these remote schools while watching our performances, I realise all over again why this is worth every bit of effort. The kids are transported to the world of stories! I remember, during the first year of the project, after a performance of Kaan-Kaan Kumari (The Why-Why Girl), children surrounded our actors and asked them to read it aloud once again. This was very encouraging for us!

After a performance of My Mother's Sari, we conduct an activity, where actors drape saris on the children.  Initially the boys feet shy, but when a male actor requests to drape, they are ready to do it!

3. You mentioned that these children do not speak Marathi. How do you overcome this problem and in what languages are the performances?

Many studies in the field of education have shown that in many States in India, including Maharashtra, children cannot read and write properly even when they are in the seventh or eighth standard. The situation is even worse in the tribal belts because many of these children speak a different language at home.They have no connection with standard Marathi used in their text books. So, they fall behind in both reading and writing. This affects learning and eventually, they drop out. So, as performers we use all kinds of dialects, to make Marathi accessible to the children. In the play ‘Kaan-Kaan Kumari’, we used local folk and Katakari, a language spoken by the local people.

4. You have adapted our books When Ali became Bajrangbali, My Mother's Sari, A Silly Story of Bondapalli and Our incredible Cow. How did you come to choose these books and do tell us about your experiences adapting them.

In Goshtarang, we perform stories for children from grades 1 to 7. So, we curate age-appropriate stories for the children. For the early groups, we use the text as it is in the book.  Since the children in our areas are not regulars at such performances, their attention span is less. So we keep it simple, and read aloud the stories to them later.  

For example, we use Sandhya Rao’s My Mother’s Sari translated by Snehalata Datar and Madhuri Purandare’s Father’s Moustache, as they do not include heavy reading content.

With slightly more textual content, the stories chosen for the older age groups are normally thought-provoking. Mahashweta Devi’s The Why Why Girl, Amchi Bhannat Gaay (Our Incredible Cow) or Jujja and Thomas Wieslander’s Mama Moo on Swing are some of the selected stories. Sometimes, we also adapt these stories. For example, we made 'Amchi Bhannat Gaay' a musical. It was quite challenging, but also the best experience! Shantanu, our music director and our fellows (actors) made it happen! Thanks to Tulika for doing amazing work, and for providing these books in so many languages. 

5. Do you think theatre can overcome language barriers? 

Yes, it can. Theatre is a live experience. It has the power to connect with the audience. The use of sound, movement and choreography together can give a sensory experience to the spectator.

6. Tell us about the format you use for your plays. Any special theatrical devices? 

My colleagues Chinmay Kelkar, Prasad Vanarse and I, who have directed performances for Goshtarang, don't use sets lights or too much of recorded music. So, the actors' skill to tell the story becomes very important.

7.  What are some of the other books/stories you have used that got a great reception? 

A story like Don Kutryanchi Goshta makes them laugh, as they have a blast watching the actor play the role of a dog. They also want to jump around like the mice in Itku Pitku. The children get completely engrossed in the tricks of the monkey named Ali from When Ali Became Bajrangbali. Their eyes show sympathy for the blind Kanna in Kanna Panna and they always want to ask questions like Moyna in The Why Why Girl!

Our success is that a programme developed for reading and writing development, gives so much joy to the children. If we continue to receive this kind of response, Goshtarang will certainly make a name for itself in the field of education and children’s theatre in the coming years.


Want to know what questions Moyna asks or what tricks Ali performs?
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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

#MayilVerse for Better or Worse!

So it’s time to emerge
And spread my wings to fly
The expressions that I once submerged
Take me through the sky

                   – excerpt from the winning poem, I Am, by winner Aditi V (age 15)

The third book in the Mayil series, This is me, Mayil, is named after a poem Mayil writes. Authors Niveditha Subramanian and Sowmya Rajendran explore a teenager’s emerging sense of identity in a world of 'selifiesteem' and soft focus filters. Tulika's growing list of Teens&Tweens books ( made us want to find out what 'Me' means for children today. Little did we know how surprised we were going to be with the answers!

As the poems flowed in, there was one recurring theme –  I am unique. No compromise is a promising beginning for the next generation of poets! The entries also covered a wide range of styles. There were lists and likes. Others that were immensely rappable and some that made us smile.

I like to play games
But not learning scientific names 
                                                       – Harshit Gupta (age 11)

The girl who can turn and twist like rubber
This is me,
The girl who can do all sorts of drama
This is me.
                                                           Meerashri (age 11)

Most gave us hope, whether it was for a better, greener world or one where reading is still valued. Like our other winner all the way from Singapore.

I am from books 
Books with pages 
Caressing a world
Far greater
Than the one we live in
                                                       Navya Singh (age 14), winner

Authors Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran at the event.

There were poems of acceptance and rebellion. Promising and performed with an enthusiasm that had most of us cheering along! 

Don’t know what I want to tell myself,
Am I the boss or Santa’s elf?
My mind is filled with a lot of confusion,
A lot of options, a lot of illusions,
Am I being the person the world wants me to be,
No dammit
I’m not a project
I’m ‘ME’.
     Jiya Francis (age 11), special mention

...and now that this girl is free
I’ll yell it from the rooftops
that this is who
I’m supposed to be
no matter what I look like
no matter what my gender is
no matter who I like
no matter what
because this
this mess of frizzy hair
this constellation of acne upon my cheeks
this short, chubby kid
this is me
                                                                – Janani Balaji (age 13), winner

Then there were ones that made us sit up and notice the bold self awareness that was almost painful. At an age when most kids do not understand or even notice bullying, body shaming or gender!

Hello, anybody there?
It's me, just me over here,
I may look like a big bully to you,
But no, I am always kind at heart.

     Shravanthika Karthik (age 10)

The event at the Tulika bookstore, featuring our local participants, saw 14 performances. The shortlisted poets from outside Chennai sent in video and audio performances that made us wish we had some kind of instantaneous travel portal. We would love to have seen them live! 

A special shout out to the parents who brought the kids to the store and sent us their lovingly taken video performances. You are doing it right!

Want to dive into the Mehyl zone? 
Grab your copy of series, starting from Mayil Will Not Be Quiet! here.